Crown Jewels

What gives the restored warbirds of the Flying Heritage Collection their sparkle?

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Flash back to July 19, 1943. Two Fw 190s were attacking a Russian supply train bound for Leningrad when the engine of one quit. The pilot, Sergeant Paul Rätz, glided to a safe landing. He left his flying cap on the seat but took the airplane's panel clock with him. Trying to make his way back to German lines, he was captured a few miles away and remained imprisoned in Russia for 16 years before finally returning to Germany. In 1988, a collector found the Focke-Wulf where Rätz had left it, his helmet still resting on the seat. Rätz died in 1989, never having learned that his airplane had been recovered. But his family did—and, it turns out, they still have the clock.

A Vintage Wings technician dismantling the 190's BMW 801 engine found a clod of dirt in an oil line downstream from the oil filter. This had evidently been the reason for the forced landing: Lack of lubrication had caused an internal shaft to overheat and fail, disabling the fuel and oil pumps. But how had the dirt—not engine dirt, but soil, earth—gotten there? Says Jeff Thomas, "BMW's policy on major engine maintenance was to insist that the whole 'power egg'—the engine and all of its plumbing and equipment and mounting hardware—just be taken off and sent back to the factory rather than repaired in the field." As a result, all engine assembly was done in Germany, some of it by slave laborers. The theory is that one of those laborers had packed dirt into the oil line to sabotage the engine, the engine had then been shipped to Russia and installed on the airplane at the front, and within a few minutes after takeoff the defiant act of the distant and anonymous captive had done its work.

The minute historical precision and obsessive fidelity to truth that characterize the Flying Heritage Collection raise a philosophical question. History has not been entirely kind to the 19th century French architectural historian Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, whose painstakingly researched restorations of the great masterpieces of French medieval and Gothic architecture were later criticized for effacing the boundary between what was original and what was new, albeit re-created with original methods and appropriate materials. In that case, antiquity in and of itself—the knowledge that the original stones, however corroded now by time, had witnessed the coronations and the deaths of kings and so possessed a higher kind of truth—was seen as a thing distinct from mere antique forms, however authentically expressed. The same sort of misgiving might beset the visitor who stands before Upupa epops, unable to know which of the pieces of metal before him were present when Bud Tordoff shot down that Me 262, and which were not.

But most who make the pilgrimage to this remarkable collection will be untroubled by that scruple. Bill Klaers, who with his business partner Alan Wojciak had owned a Mustang and had seen and flown countless others, says, until he saw the finished Upupa epops, "I never knew what a Mustang looked like!" John Dibbs, whose photography accompanies this article and who wears his love of old airplanes on his sleeve, speaks of a "change in temperature" that he feels when he faces the old Mustang—the chill of knowing that this is the real thing, this is exactly how it was. When, ten years from now, the Flying Heritage Collection's airplanes have all been restored, and they are on the ramp with their engines running on a flying day, that chill will be felt by many: the momentary sense of the past recaptured, of Then made Now.

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